Literary Ornithology: Bird-Watching across Academic Disciplines with Honors Students

Article excerpt

As professors of literature, we have a fairly good chance of engaging our students when we teach Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." True, the text can seem daunting on a first read, but who can resist a moody if not downright creepy ghost story told by the survivor of a nightmarish ordeal to a detained and gradually mesmerized wedding guest? The story has an intriguing psychological component in the progressive isolation of its main narrator, strong theological references, and vivid tactile images. And it has a bird in it, an albatross, the image of which has given rise to the well known expression "an albatross around one's neck." Similarly, John Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," a beautiful poem that practically embraces the readers with its lyricism and commandeers them with its precision and elegance, is a relatively easy sell to undergraduates. Both of these poems use a bird to reflect some sort of journey of the mind, and while these works are inviting texts on their own, their appeal is enhanced when the reader knows something about the bird at the center of the verse. This appeal is even stronger in poems and literary periods that do not appear quite as immediately attractive to students, such as the longer Middle English debate poem "The Owl and the Nightingale," an entertaining and spirited argument between two species as to which better serves humanity. Or, to move back a few centuries, the Old English poem "The Phoenix," which students tend to find too dry or "philosophical" (they mean theological), or, to move ahead to a more recent era, Edward Thomas's "The Owl," a poem which remains cryptic to students unfamiliar with its World War I milieu. Even Emily Dickinson's "Poem 1463," almost universally acknowledged as a description of a hummingbird, becomes more appealing when the powerful images are reinforced by scientific observation and biological reality. This reinforcement is what we set out to do in our interdisciplinary team-taught honors seminar at Marshall University, playfully entitled "Literary Ornithology."


The scientific consensus is that 9,702 bird species live on our planet, just under one tenth of that number on the North American continent; quite a few of these birds have made their way into our literature and culture, appearing in early texts in both practical and metaphoric capacities. The vast majority of these poems can certainly be appreciated without any further knowledge about the birds, but having that knowledge makes the reading experience all the more satisfying and, for lack of a better word, relevant, for our students. The Marshall University Honors Program provided an ideal opportunity to read poems and stories about birds in the spirit of scientific inquiry and in the context of cultural perceptions; like other programs described in Honors in Practice, the Marshall University Honors Program is built on team-taught interdisciplinary seminars. Bird-watching is an educational pastime that lends itself ideally to a multi-disciplinary approach; in addition to learning about the many species of birds in our immediate area (representing seventeen of the twenty-one orders in North America; there are twenty-eight orders world-wide), we were also able to observe how birds function as a barometer of an environment's general health. We then read works of literature describing birds in light of our own experiences and measured their literary portrayals against our scientific observations. We looked for birds in literary texts and cultural icons as well as in the field.

Two poems serve as ideal examples of our approach, Walt Whitman's "The Dalliance of the Eagles" (1880) and, on a more complex level, Richard Wilbur's "The Writer" (1976). Whitman's poem is a flurry of activity, punctuated by present participles (the number of -ing words is practically overwhelming). Whitman readers will immediately recognize the familiar features of a Whitman poem, notably the extended lines of blank verse and the absence of a main verb. …


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